Defying Bush, Senator Meets with Syrian Leader Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the Bush administration will not seek help from Iran and Syria as part of its efforts to improve conditions in Iraq, as was recommended last week by the Iraq Study Group. So it was over State Department reservations that a U.S. senator from Florida talked with Syria's president.
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Defying Bush, Senator Meets with Syrian Leader

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Defying Bush, Senator Meets with Syrian Leader

Defying Bush, Senator Meets with Syrian Leader

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DEBORAH AMOS: Syria knows firsthand, about instability in Iraq from the rising tide of Iraqi refugees - an estimated 40,000 a month coming to the country. So many, they have changed the character of entire neighborhoods in Damascus.

This street on the outskirts of the capital is now called Iraqi Circle. The baker here sells special Iraqi bread called samoon. Close by, a restaurant named Fallujah specializes in a favorite Iraq meat dish.

Iraqis have brought their food and culture, but the newest arrivals have little else - often leaving home in a hurry. Ahmed Timor(ph) arrived in Damascus a month ago.

AHMED TIMOR: I am a civil engineer but I cannot here work. If I have a little bit money, I can - until it's finished.

AMOS: Syria has been the most welcoming to Iraqi refugees. The overall number could be close to a million.

But there are now concerns that Iraq's sectarian and religious tensions could flare here, says Mohammed Habash, a member of Syria's parliament.

MOHAMMED HABASH: We have to be careful because the situation in Iraq, it's not so far. We were very worried against any kind of import the Iraqi situation to Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

AMOS: Habash's office is next door to a kindergarten class - overcrowded, as so many are in the Syrian capital. Thousands of Iraq children have enrolled in Syrian schools, straining resources and the patience of some Syrians, says Habash.

HABASH: There's not benefit for Syria to find 1 million refugees here in Syria. We have to find some solution. So I believe that to open the Syrian embassy in Baghdad and open the Iraqi embassy in Damascus - this is the correct step in the correct time.

AMOS: The resumption of full diplomatic relations after a break of more than two decades took place last week. The new Iraqi embassy is open in a high- priced Damascus neighborhood. At the official ceremony, Syria's foreign minister pledged to support stability in Iraq and dropped insistence on a U.S. troop withdrawal for now.

All this comes as the Bush administration is being urged to open talks with Syria, on ways to stabilize Iraq. The Syrians aren't waiting for Washington. They've opened an Iraqi initiative of their own. It's a position that's paid off. European envoys have already reached out to Damascus with a steady stream of official visits, says Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi.

IBRAHIM HAMIDI: The Syrian officials feel comfortable, confident the isolation has broken. Engagement policy has started. They believe that they have a role to play in the three big conflicts in the region.

AMOS: That role, explains Hamidi, is with the Palestinians because the Syrian influence over the Islamist group Hamas; in Lebanon, with Hezbollah's challenge to the government there; and in Iraq, the Syrians also have another card to play.

HAMIDI: And they have good relations with Iran. So they feel that they are in a good position. So there's no need to rush to talk to the Americans.

AMOS: But Americans are coming to Syria. One U.S. senator met with the Syrian president this week. Three more are expected next week. Can Syria help deliver stability in Iraq? Can they, as the Bush administration insists, close their border, stop the flow of fighters, money and guns? Nadim Shehadi is a Middle East analyst with Chatham House, a London think tank.

NADIM SHEHADI: The Syrians always send a mixed message. It takes a lot of skill to decode, and that's part of their strength.

AMOS: If I were to ask you right now, what is their message?

SHEHADI: Their message is, come to me, baby, and I'm willing to dictate my terms. And I'm the winner. Change your attitude. Don't put conditions; otherwise, I won't even speak to you.

AMOS: Syria and the Bush administration say they have the same goals in Iraq - a stable country, free from violence, a place where refugees can go home. But opening talks after so many bitter years will not be easy without dramatic changes in Damascus and in Washington. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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